My alarm goes off early on a Saturday morning. I had a busy week at work and I’m exhausted. But while I would love to bury myself back in my duvet, I drag myself awake and make a strong coffee to see myself through my morning shift. Although I may have already put in 40 hours at my office job, my weekends and evenings are taken up by my freelance writing gig, and today is no exception.
Later I will make a three-hour trip to my friend’s birthday party in another city, but instead of taking up her offer to sleep over I have already booked tickets to return on a night bus, catching up on the sleep I’ve missed as we hurtle down dimly lit roads. After all, there are invoices to file the next morning and deadlines to meet before the working week starts all over again.
I’m not alone in scrabbling to make extra income in my spare time ― 44 million Americans report working a side-hustle, with millennials driving the trend. In fact, 61% of younger millennials earn extra money outside of their day job, making a median additional income of $200 a month.
In many ways we’re lucky to be part of a generation that can tap into such varied means of making ends meet. The rise of the gig economy means that flexible work is often only ever a few clicks away. Instead of spending a lazy day off scrolling through Netflix, I can be topping up my bank balance from the comfort of my own bed.
Others squeeze in Uber shifts or freelance work around studying or use gig economy income to support them as they pursue a perhaps low-paying passion project. The world of digital work means that we have the options and opportunity to work in a way that suits us, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have found a side-hustle that I love and that provides me a level of financial security I had not had.
And yet the gig economy is undoubtedly flawed. While for some of us it is a convenient way of making cash, the zero-hours contracts and lack of worker’s rights that characterize gig economy work normalizes a culture of insecure work. True, I may enjoy the perks of being able to augment my income in a manner that suits my lifestyle. But there are also serious downsides.
When I first started side-hustling, it was unquestionably enjoyable. I loved writing, and I’d scribbled away for fun without expecting a cent in return for years. The fact that I could get paid for it seemed like an incredible stroke of luck, and I felt a jolt of disbelief every time I would see money land in my bank account for something that I loved to do.
But as the cost of living continues to creep up and my salary fails to match mounting financial pressures, the shine of the side-hustle has started to wear thin. It can sometimes be hard to find the joy in canceling plans and typing through the night when I’m fatigued from a full day at my desk job.
I am constantly stressed, endlessly worried about balancing personal and professional demands on my time, and anxious about continuing to win work contracts. I feel a vague yet perpetual guilt that while I plug away at my side-hustle, other areas of my life must inevitably suffer — the time and energy I can dedicate to loved ones, my mental and physical health, and my personal hobbies and interests. There’s very little space for anything even resembling a work/life balance when your life has become your work.
From the inside, it is clear that the normalization of the side-hustle has a sinister slant. We seem to be a society that fetishizes productivity, tagging #workporn and speaking of the so-called “hustle” in reverent tones. When I hear side-hustling being lauded as a solution to a workforce suffering from burnout, financial insecurity and endemic apathy toward their primary careers, I feel torn.
All of those things are true, and side-hustling has undoubtedly given me a welcome distraction from the frustrations of a conventional office job and watching myself topple back into my overdraft month after month. But what concerns me is how side-hustling is so often portrayed as a choice — as a means of taking control of your career, your finances and your happiness. When side-hustling is so often a solution to such fundamental issues as how to pay your rent, can we really consider it a choice, or is it a matter of urgent necessity?
The pressure that some people must feel to put in extra hours becomes more apparent when the tangible risks of side-hustling are highlighted. Working over 39 hours a week has been linked to a host of mental and physical problems, from depression to cardiovascular issues. It is perfectly plausible that side-hustlers like me are quite literally working themselves to death.
So why am I still picking up my laptop to pitch my writing to the highest payer? I am, after all, very privileged to have a full-time job that covers most of my expenses. And yet even with two jobs, owning a house or a car is still an impossibility for me and the millions of young people who are unable to get onto the property ladder. For those of us who came to adulthood amid a recession, financial stability feels like a distant dream even with a side-hustle topping up our incomes.
So what’s the solution? Certainly side-hustling has benefitted me, and it would surely be hypocritical for me to tell others not to pursue a second stream of revenue in their spare time. It’s hard to argue that side-hustling is a bad idea when I’m reaping the financial and personal benefits of pursuing my dream writing career without giving up on the stability of a nine-to-five. And yet, as I spend my weekend declining invites and glued to my laptop, my mood foul from being chronically overworked, I feel my conscience recoil at the thought of recommending the path that I’ve chosen.
My advice to aspiring side-hustlers would be to make the choice with caution. To those already on a side-hustling path, I ask only that the endless glorification of side-hustling is curtailed. The need to have more than one job merely pastes over cracks in an economy creaking at the seams. Overselling the side-hustle dream makes us part of that problem.